There are alternatives to meting out punishment that treats our school children like criminals. Instead of sending students to the principal’s office or worse—calling police into classrooms to deal with disorderly conduct—schools can equip their teachers with tools proven to create safe, supportive learning environments and defuse disruption. The very things that mitigate student stress and bad behavior make a school what it’s supposed to be: a healthy and productive place to learn.
Many students who act out and run into trouble in schools are growing up in poverty, exposed to chaos and violence. This exposure can be traumatic and it impacts how children develop and behave. Vulnerable and hyper-vigilant, such students are often impulsive with little ability to regulate their emotions. They are also more apt to disrupt the learning environment for everyone.
There is an antidote to this negative behavior but it’s not police. In fact, police presence in schools increases anxiety and fear, and intensifies the negative behaviors that lead to suspension, expulsion or worse—the well-worn path to the juvenile justice system.
The antidote is to build a nurturing, predictable, and safe environment, and to deliberately create a positive school culture where adults have high expectations for every child. This is what my organization, Turnaround for Children, has done in 77 schools and counting.
At the heart of this work is the notion that expected behavior must be taught to everyone in the school in a clear and consistent manner. Vanderbilt University’s Classroom Organization and Management Program (COMP), for example, helps teachers develop and implement classroom procedures to ensure the learning environment is safe and productive for all. Students are taught how they are expected to enter a classroom, turn in homework, line up, and transition to the lunchroom.
A simple procedure known as the quiet signal enables teachers to get the full attention of the whole class within five seconds. When a teacher raises one hand high in the air, students stop what they are doing, mirror the signal themselves, and look at and actively listen to the teacher.
Teachers can also learn how to manage and correct antisocial behavior before it escalates into something unsafe for everyone. Practices developed by Geoff Colvin at the University of Oregon target specific behaviors—including non-compliance, disrespect, and threats—with a range of research-based approaches.
Teachers praise good behavior, such as the students sitting tall with their eyes on the lesson at hand, rather than focus on children who are acting out to get attention. When a disruptive child models good behavior, he too earns the teacher’s thanks and praise. This approach goes a long way toward maximizing time for instruction.
There are also specific instructional strategies that not only boost academic achievement; they develop essential social skills, such as self-regulation, empathy, and respect for others. Cooperative learning techniques developed by Spencer Kagan encourage children to work with one another, while building trust and communication skills that cut down fights.
Grouped in pods of four students with a variety of academic abilities, students are taught to engage with each other through the academic material in a highly active, participatory manner.
There are times when these strategies aren’t enough to mitigate the most challenging behaviors, such as students who are agitated or angry and interfere with everyone’s learning. Schools can be designed however, and teachers and staff taught, to identify children with the most intense needs and get them the help they need, either in school or at a community mental health provider.
One highly effective approach is to create teams of faculty and staff who meet regularly to triage cases where students are struggling behaviorally or academically. When these children are cared for properly, the whole school becomes a calmer, safer place for everyone, with fewer calls to 911, less absenteeism and lower teacher turnover.
The key to success is training every adult and child in a school strategies that create a healthy and effective learning environment. We want children to spend more time learning, not in lockdown.
Pamela Cantor, M.D., is the president and CEO of Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit organization that partners with public schools to address the challenges to teaching and learning that stem from poverty.